Today, there is a stark contrast between Downtown and Midtown Atlanta. Over the past 30 years, Downtown Atlanta has been on the decline. Companies are leaving, buildings are beginning to decay, and the driving force of commercial business in the area revolves around Georgia State Students, most of which are absent for a quarter of the year, and conference attendees. Downtown to many Atlanteans can give off a dreary presence these days. However, a quick walk over the Peachtree St. bridge will abruptly transition you into Midtown. All of the sudden, you are surrounded by filled restaurants, expensive high-rises, and new tech company headquarters. When did Midtown become this booming area of both the finance and technology industries? 30 years ago, the contrast between Downtown and Midtown was quite the opposite. One of the largest contributing factors to the transformation of Midtown was that of Georgia Tech and the development of Technology Square under the leadership of Dr. Wayne Clough. Since 2015, hundreds of companies have set-up regional headquarters, research facilities, and in some cases, international headquarters in and around Technology Square. Today, Tech has developed relationships with many of the companies who have moved to the perimeter of the campus, but this was not the case 30 years ago.
[Images Provided by president.gatech.edu]
Midtown was a different place in the late 80s and 90s. Artie Peterson, a bartender who has been working in Midtown since 1996 said, “It was mostly barren, and we were just starting to see the first signs of gentrification. There were only two bars on Peachtree Street, and there were no streetside shops, high-rises, or even nice houses. We would be walking by an abandoned building between 7th and 8th street and at night you could see the flicker of lighters in the building being held up to pipes. There were prostitutes everywhere and only a few people had begun to move back into the area by this time.”  “During my years in graduate school at Tech from 1991 to 1995, we rarely ventured into the Midtown neighborhood across the connector. There were no reasons to go there–no classes, no internships, no cool restaurants, no conferences–and good reasons not to go there.” Said current president of Georgia Tech, Ángel Cabrera. The state of Midtown in the 1990s was the result of two decades of emigration from the community. Midtown was known as a center for the counter-culture movement in the 60’s and many residents moved farther out into Atlanta’s growing suburbs. According to Midtown Alliance,” Prurient activity moved into Midtown, with the arrival of 20+ massage parlors, adult bookstores, and bath houses. Crime increased on the streets, and the neighborhood fell into a state of neglect “ In his book, The Technological University Reimagined : Georgia Institute of Technology, 1994-2008, Dr. Clough hints that the main reason of the degradation of Midtown was the construction of the 75/85 connector and how it “Carved up Atlanta neighborhoods all along the way”  (Clough, 2424) Originally, Tech’s intentions were to stay across the connector from Midtown.
Before the Clough Administration, Georgia Tech’s view of its surrounding areas were ideas of isolation. When asked about Tech’s attitude towards its surrounding areas in the late 80’s and early 90s, Sandi Bramblett, an employee of Georgia Tech for over 30 years said, “Midtown was a wasteland and the attitude at Tech was to “build a wall around campus”. I specifically remember Richard Fuller, the Vice President of business for Georgia Tech at the time, saying, “The barrier-ization of campus from the surrounding areas is top priority.”  It’s very possible that Tech’s views would have remained this way if it weren’t for the Olympics. In his book, Dr. Clough tells the story of having to drive through midtown to avoid the construction of the Olympic Village. While he was driving this alternative route, he noticed that many of the properties in the area had “for sale” signs on them. In his book, Dr. Clough said, “It dawned on me that what these signs actual said for Georgia Tech and by extension Atlanta was “opportunity.” How that might happen was not obvious at the time, but I thought this area just might be the place to develop a new kind of technology hub.” (Clough, 2433)
Dr. Clough brought the idea to the board of Trustees in 1997 and fundraising began within 6 months of the proposal. By this time, no formal plan for what departments or buildings that were to be located or built in the area had been drawn up. The property Tech had initially purchased was on the South Side of 5th Street, and a private developer had bought the dilapidated Biltmore Hotel to convert into office spaces. The property on the Northside of the street was partly owned by the Georgia Tech foundation and the other half was owned by Coca-Cola. Initially there were efforts by a private developer to purchase the land from Coca-Cola, and in doing so, the Tech Foundation would sell them their half of the land to the same developer. These negotiations fell through though, and Dr. Clough had to go to The University Financing Foundation (TUFF) to get the funding for Tech to purchase the land on the Northside of 5th Street. In 2000, Tech officially announced the project. The project was received well as it ran alongside Blueprint Midtown, another urban development plan which was organized by Midtown Alliance that was being implemented around 10th Street and heading North. (Clough, 2596) During this proposal, Georgia Tech mentioned its plans for one of the most important aspects of the project, the 5th Street Bridge.
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Clough himself blames much of the state of Midtown in the late 90’s on the decline of the area that began when the 75/85 connector was built. The construction of the interstate divided many Atlanta neighborhoods causing them to suffer and Midtown was no different. Atlanta Magazine said, “The highway now called the Downtown Connector, the stretch where I-75 and I-85 run conjoined through the city, gutted black neighborhoods by forcing the removal of many working-class blacks from the central business district.” In 2005, this same barrier stood between Tech’s main campus and the proposed Technology Square. There was a 5th street bridge already in place but as Dr. Clough describes, “A standard-issue, drab, steel-plate-girder structure…… was about to get a much-needed extreme makeover”.(Clough, 2821) Tech was now taking on the barrier that had affected so many Atlanta communities over the past 50 years, the connector. Working with the DOT and FHA, the 5th Street bridge was transformed into a park that stretched over a 14-lane interstate. Both the sight and sound of the busy interstate were nearly eliminated by the design of the bridge and the foliage planted along its walls. The bridge acts as a perfect, seamless connection between Tech’s main campus and Technology square. The historically destructive Atlanta interstate had been conquered albeit at a large financial expense. The bridge was the blood transfusion South Midtown needed and it gave the area new life.
The 5th Street Bridge was the final piece of the first phase of the development of Tech Square. With its completion, there was a seamless transition between the growing business district and one of the top engineering colleges in the world. However, in 2022 developers are struggling to sell office space to companies. According to the New York Times, “In only a year, the market value of office towers in Manhattan, home to the country’s two largest central business districts, has plummeted 25 percent”. It’s not just New York either. Downtown Atlanta is having the same problem. The Brookings Institution said, “Jobs, people, and prosperity have moved northwards and outwards, leaving a large arc of little or no population growth, economic decline, and an unusually high concentration of poverty…”  However, South Midtown has managed to avoid this problem. The population of companies and firms has grown in the past years rather than shrunk. Norfolk Southern built their Global Headquarters just outside Tech Square just last year, despite the growth of remote work caused by the global pandemic. This is due to Georgia Tech’s efforts to establish relationships with these companies. The relationship allows the companies to benefit from the talent coming out of the college while they invest back into the college. The Harvard Business Review published a story about the developments and gave the reason, “What’s driving companies to relocate near urban universities is the changing role of innovation within the private sector as firms are increasingly relying on external sources to support technology development.” One of these external sources would be the Coda Building, completed just a few years ago, which offers large amounts of high-computing space for these companies to use. “These labs, technology centers, and HQs are partnering with Georgia Tech students. In addition, they have engaged with other area universities in close proximity — Georgia State University, Emory University, Savannah College of Art & Design, and the Atlanta University Center. Through our graduates, as well as graduates of other Atlanta-area universities, we provide talent that helps drive the economies of Atlanta, the state of Georgia, and our nation.,” said the current president of Georgia Tech, Ángel Cabrera.
Midtown has changed a lot in the last 25 years. The neighborhood has a become an area of wealth from all of the companies that have moved into the area in the last 10 years. Microsoft, Google, NCR, NFS, Delta, Anthem, and many more have established locations in the area and continue to invest. Georgia Tech has gone to great lengths to incentivize these massive companies to establish themselves in Atlanta, and its paying off for both Tech and Midtown. An economic impact study from the University of Georgia estimates that Georgia Tech has an Output Impact of just over 4 billion dollars. While many corporate centers are on the decline these days, Technology Square and Midtown, as a whole, continue to grow. Georgia Tech and its development of Technology Square have played a massive role in making Midtown the outlier that it is today.
- Bramblett, Zachary. Interview of Artie Peterson. Personal, April 24, 2022.
- Cabrera, Ángel. “‘Oh, by the Way . . . ” The Tech Square Story.” Office of the President. Georgia Institute of Technology, November 7, 2019. https://president.gatech.edu/blog/oh-way-tech-square-story.
- “Riches to Rags to Riches.” Midtown Atlanta. Midtown Alliance, 2021. https://www.midtownatl.com/about/the-story-of-midtown.
- Clough, G. Wayne. The Technological University Reimagined: Georgia Institute of Technology, 1994-2008. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2021.
- Bramblett, Zachary. Interview with Sandi Bramblett. Personal, April 25, 2022.
- Monroe, Doug. “Where It All Went Wrong.” Atlanta Magazine. Hour Media Group, March 18, 2019. https://www.atlantamagazine.com/great-reads/marta-tsplost-transportation/.
- Eavis, Peter, and Matthew Haag. “After Pandemic, Shrinking Need for Office Space Could Crush Landlords.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 8, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/08/business/economy/office-buildings-remote-work.html.
- “Moving Beyond Sprawl – The Challenge for Metropolitan Atlanta.” The Brookings Institution, 2000. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/atlanta.pdf.
- Andes, Scott, and Bruce Katz. “Why Today’s Corporate Research Centers Need to Be in Cities.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, April 24, 2017. https://hbr.org/2016/03/why-todays-corporate-research-centers-need-to-be-in-cities.
- “The Economic Impact of University System of Georgia .” The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, 2021. https://www.usg.edu/assets/usg/docs/USG_Impact_2020.pdf.
- N/A. 1981 — The Area Just North of 10th Street in Midtown Atlanta Appearing down on Its Luck. Photograph. Midtown Atlanta, 1981. Atlanta Journal Constitution. https://www.ajc.com/lifestyles/flashback-photos-atlanta-midtown-from-1970-1990/SMDxcCxjupgwy2E11uRfzN/.
- N/A. Peachtree Street in Midtown Atlanta Looking North from 8th Street. Photograph. Midtown Atlanta, June 10, 1977. Atlanta Journal Constitution.
- Arnett, Alex. The Coda Building. Photograph. Atlanta, 2021. Portman Architects .
- Georgia Institute of Technology. “The 5th Street Bridge Was Newly Completed.” Flickr. Yahoo!, March 9, 2015. https://www.flickr.com/photos/georgiatech/16576541580.